Looking at the Hugo Game/Interactive Experience proposal

Ira Alexandre of Lady Business has put together an extraordinarily well researched proposal for a Hugo Award for Games and ‘Interactive Experiences’. There are overview posts at Lady Business Dreamwidth page and at File 770. Accompanying the overview is an extensive Google Docs document with a longer analysis, examples and statistics. It’s not a quick read but it is a well argued piece.

There are some strong arguments for a specific Hugo Award category in this area:

  • Video games and table-top games are a major way people experience science fiction and fantasy
  • Worldcon members in general have a clear interest in games and gaming (no, not every member but games are a clear area of interest)
  • Games do not fit well with other categories. In particular, Best Dramatic Presentation has issues including games and so does Best Related Work even if technically the categories can accommodate them.
  • Games and other interactive media have unique and interesting features for conveying science-fictional/fantasy stories and aesthetics. Games aren’t just a popular medium, they are also an interesting and influential one.

I think all of those arguments are strong ones but they aren’t conclusive ones. I’m more sceptical about arguments I’ve seen around that suggest a Hugo Award for games will bring in more interest to the Hugo Awards but that isn’t a central argument of the proposal.

Weighed against the positives above is the question of how to define a category and whether it is even possible to make relative judgements in this field sufficiently well to nominate and vote. Access to games and playing time are also impediments and further complicating matters is the issue of eligibility. The extended document looks at each of these issues and attempts to address them.

The boldest aspect of the proposal is the category definition. I would have thought a very narrow definition would potentially have more success as a category but instead the proposal has gone for an extremely broad approach. It really is a very clever category definition, covering a broad field succinctly:

“Any work or substantial modification of a work (such as a game or interactive narrative, demonstration, or installation) first released to the public in the previous calendar year in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects in any medium where player/user choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, pacing, play, or experience of the work.”

The definition is narrow in one sense: it focuses on the key element of user interaction with the work. That creates a simple test for whether a work is eligible or not: does user have any control over the work (beyond what somebody reading a book already has). At the same time it covers a huge field including chose-your-own-adventure books, table top RPGs, interactive stories, mainstream video games and even theme park experiences.

Is that too big of a field? Maybe but it is less all encompassing than Best Related Work. In reality, if the category is workable over time certain things will come to dominate what actually makes it as finalists and winners. What those things are may change over time but a more narrow effective definition will come into play.

Initially though, this will be hard category to vote in. The extended proposal acknowledges some aspects of that, raising directly the issue of accessing the materials:

“A concern with any new category is whether it is reasonably accessible for nominees, in terms of both cost of the materials/works and in terms of wide availability of a sufficient number of works to fill out a longlist.. The biggest AAA games are notoriously expensive, and there is a proliferation of gaming platforms that are also substantial investments. “

As the document notes, there are ways of getting the feel for games without playing the whole thing including You Tube videos of game play and other media. Non-video games though can also be both expensive and hard to access. Even if you have a regular bunch of friends with whom you play table top games, it’s still a bigger challenge to try out a game than it is to try out a book or see a movie.

Being technically possible to access a work in some way and actually doing so is an issue. I think it is the basic flaw in Best Series as a category — the Hugo Packet has often given great access to a series but I’ve just not had the time to read that much without giving up something else.

I think accessibility to the works remains one of the biggest obstacles to this category working effectively, although the proposal makes substantial efforts to address this.

My other concern is the multiple vectors against which we’d need to judge works in this category. The proposal gives numerous examples of other game awards but I’m struck by the many ways game awards split their own categories.

Consider also the many ways we can experience science-fictional/fantastic elements in media:

  • In the narrative
  • In the world building
  • In the visual aesthetics

Those aren’t orthogonal to each other and all three already apply to Graphic Story, and Best Dramatic Presentation. If we count book covers as part of the experience of reading then all three play a part in the basic text categories as well. So, if we already cope with these disparate dimensions why would games be any more of a challenge?

Looking at just video games for a moment, part of what make this medium interesting is its capacity to extend outwards in any one of these. The added holistic dimension of what we can call ‘game play’ mean we don’t have the same kinds of trade-offs. For a film, good cinematography can only get you so far if your plot is weak but a video game can eschew narrative altogether and be wonderful. I’ve wasted months (possibly years) of my life in Minecraft worlds that have no narrative other than me compulsively building canals. The background plot to most of the Zelda games is a mediocre fantasy story about a princess, a demon and a young hero but I adore those games and the visual, puzzle world they offer.

Yes, in Best Novel as readers we might have works that trade-off the quality of the prose against the pull of the plot. We can forgive (or even love) a been-done-before setting if the characters are engaging and the plot does something new with the material. Any ranking of creative content is a trade off of multiple qualities. Yet, I think games might take this to a point of incommensurability. Of course, we won’t know that unless we try it.

I don’t have a good concluding paragraph. I’m sceptical about games as a category but Ira Alexandre has made a very good argument and I’m less sceptical than I was.

11 thoughts on “Looking at the Hugo Game/Interactive Experience proposal

  1. This is the kind of thoughtfulness needed to help decide whether to back the proposal.

    It brings to mind a meta idea about the Hugos generally. A previous generation of voters would have considered that the argument for the primacy of the Hugos is that the voters were knowledgeable — had read the subject works, and had read a great deal besides which informed their voting decisions.

    Although there are voters still trying to live this out, as time goes by we see categories being added where the priority is to give a Hugo to somebody or something, not whether the interests and temperaments of Hugo voters makes them competent to pick the winner.

    There are the Best Editor categories — where very few voters know except in the most general sense what editors do, and are provided with no inside information to evaluate the work actually done by nominees. The Best Series category requires an immense investment of time if a voter wants to be fully informed — but I don’t think that was ever the expectation of very many of its supporters.

    And the Hugo Game/Interactive Experience proposal can only be more of the same, by throwing a lasso around a vast and disparate assortment of works. To me, that weakens what I see as the appeal of the Hugos.

    It also seems to me that if, on the one hand, a Hugo will be given to a popular game, lumping everything into one category only emphasizes it has been given by voters who collectively are not especially knowledgeable about the field. Even the Dragon Awards have multiple game categories, and of course, leading game industry awards usually have one or two dozen. But trying to “solve” that problem with multiple Hugo categories undercuts the identity of the award — unless people are happy turning it into another pop culture award.

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    1. I think there’s a corollary of “if a jobs worth doing, it’s worth doing well” that if you can’t do a job well, don’t do it. Does doing the job of a game award require more fine-tuned categories? I’d say it does.


  2. I’m not terribly interested in a games category myself. But it’s wonderful to see such a well thought out propsal. If anything comes of it, I might “outsource” the category to my husband. He doesn’t participate in Hugo voting himself.

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  3. It’s up to them but I don’t think the Hugos really need a game award. And it does get into the idea that such a broad category would really need multiple sub-categories to work. If WorldCon and the Hugos wanted to be a full out multi-media culture con, then they wouldn’t have scaled back on film, t.v. and games material exhibited at the convention to favor literary works and they would have invited a slew of actors to come do autographs.

    The dramatic categories are in a sense awards for writing in film and t.v., for the crafted story and execution thereof, rather than just cinematic spectacle. They came out of an era when many SFF writers also wrote for film and t.v. or had their stories adapted or at the least served as consultants on shows or movies. And editors are directly involved in the development and production of written stories. And series may be a big time investment for voters, but SFF fans are voracious readers of series and it makes some sense to have an award that can judge and reward longer, ambitious written projects. The art awards are about the long intertwining of SFF art illustrating SFF written stories.

    But games only very occasionally involve an adaptation or a SFF literary writer working on the writing for them. And there’s not a lot of writing involved in a theme park ride, even if there is a basic story crafted for some of them. If they did a narrower games award for game writing, that went to the writers for a game/game module, that might make sense, though it would be a bit difficult to pin down credited writers for some types of games. But just an award for a vast category of games as a gaming experience — that is one industry/area in which SFF fans do involve themselves in fandom, but it has very little to do with the written word. And WorldCon and the Hugos are about the written word.

    WorldCon could have very easily morphed into a comic con or a multi-media expo like Emerald City or DragonCon, rather than a literary convention that is hosted by medium-sized conventions each year. But its people chose not to because it wanted to put literary works and story-telling at the forefront and to have a more intimate, less circus-like convention, with some professional publishing aspects. It’s a different sort of experience, even though it’s often a fairly large, much packed convention, one in which the written stories are valued and centered rather than kept as a less vital side-table of movies, t.v. shows and games.

    And I don’t see anything wrong with that. WorldCon does not have to, nor has ever sought to, cover every aspect of SFF fandom thoroughly. And the Hugos are primarily about writing and writers, not crafters, even though cosplayers, crafters, gamers, etc. take part and have some programming at WorldCon. If they’re going to add more categories, I don’t know that’s where they want to head, except maybe for games writing of some kind.

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  4. After a few days chewing this over I don’t think my skepticism has been overcome. The very disparate types of games that will have to be judged, the difficulty getting hold of the finalists, judging something like a long-term worldbuilding game in a matter of weeks, etc etc, these are all issues that I’m not seeing a way past at the moment.

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  5. I just reiterate what Ive tweeted already: Im torn.

    From an outside perspective: The (board/videogame) industry doesn’t „need“ a Hugo and I doubt it will have an impact there (of course designers always like winning awards).

    From the „inside“: If the philosophy of the Hugo is to award every narrative structure then yes, games regularly deliver. Mostly videogames (for decades now) but increasingly boardgames as well. There is no reason in my mind why movies get their category and games shouldn’t (or let me rephrase that: There are practical reasons, but there is no reason not to overcome then). In my mind the Hugos would do well to concentrate on written works, but Im probably in the minority with this one. However: If movies, games follow.

    The main problem is the difference between the narrative and the quality of the game as a game, i.e. the „fun factor“ (or whatever emotion the designer want to convey. In an ideal game narrative and the game is good, but is a superb game with little narrative (but genre theming) Hugo worthy? What about the opposite- A great narrative in a dull game? If you concentrate on the latter, „related work“ maybe the better option, or at leadt the more practical route.

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    1. “Best science fiction or fantasy narrative in an interactive format”? That was a concept I’ve had in my head but it feels a lot like trying to fillet the soul out of a piece of art.


      1. I think in the very best games gameplay and narration complement each other. But I dont think there are enough of those every year. OTOH: A very good game is a very good game, even if the story might not be a Bradbury. Id say Half Life, Deus X or Prey are good games with good stories, even if broken down just to their stories other games may offer more?
        I really am not sure if separating those two is possible or even advisable.

        In the End I think it comes down to what the Hugos want to award: The best stories or the best products? („Product“ not in a dismissive sense). Would a movie with campy acting and bad cinematography win if the story is good? (Not talking great here, just better than the better executed competition)


  6. I feel like she hasn’t considered that it’s possible, likely even, that a ballot could easily fill with AAA and AA titles. An incomplete list of big, anticipated titles coming out for Switch this year:

    -Fire Emblem: Three Houses
    -Pokemon Sword/Shield
    -Astral Chain
    -Dragon Quest 11
    -Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remastered
    -Remastered versions of Final Fantasy 7, 8, 9, 10, 10-2, 12 and Chronicles
    -the Collection of Mana (all three Mana games including Trials which is seeing its first release in the west)
    -Daemon X Machina
    -Dragon Quest Builders 2

    This is just quickly off the top of my head – and this is also for games that have come out or are coming out between June and December this year, on a single console. I also haven’t taken into account any DLC for older games that came out or is coming out this year. Nor is a lineup like this wildly unusual for video gaming, where the primary genre tends to be SFF. And bonus for double-eligibility as DLC is often scheduled well into the next year, often with new story content being among the last things to come out.

    On the other hand I don’t particularly want to see a ballot composed of Minecraft patches and DLC either, which given its popularity and the neverending reams of add-ons, patches, DLC and fan content is also entirely too likely.

    Also I don’t like that she builds up the USP as being their interactivity then pointing to Let’s Plays or Twitch streams as ways to experience the games. If you take away the USP and watch the “movie version” (complete with godawful voiceover from the player, most likely) have you really experienced the game? I would argue no, you haven’t.

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